Case Studies, Systems Thinking

Dignity and autonomy are vital ingredients in rural revitalization

In one of India’s most drought-stricken districts, the Timbaktu Collective is empowering rural communities to regenerate their farmland and sow the literal and figurative seeds of a better life.

Timbaktu Collective is a grassroots NGO established in Anantapur district by friends Bablu Ganguly, Mary Vattamattam, and John D’Souza. Fascinated by permaculture, in 1989 the trio bought 32 acres of barren land in the district and named the area Timbaktu. The remoteness of the location evoked the same sense of faraway mystery as its namesake city in Africa.

“It was such a mad experiment,” describes Ganguly of the time. The land was devoid of trees and the ground was rocky and inhospitable to life. The degraded landscape compounded the issue of unreliable rainfall and increasing rates of evaporation. The trio’s plan was to turn the area into an agroforestry project where crops, pastures, and trees could revitalize the conditions.

Planting thousands of trees, the group saw little success. Says Ganguly: “We realized there was absolutely no moisture in the land. We began to then understand more and more that this land needs healing.”

A city-raised political and theatre activist rather than a farmer, Ganguly’s travels to different parts of India had exposed the rich fabric of rural life. “I began to understand that the people had their own knowledge and wisdom which we in our foolishness were undermining,” Ganguly told Ashoka.

It is these rural communities that Ganguly, Vattamattam, and D’Souza had in mind when they founded Timbaktu Collective in 1990. Organic agricultural practices, livelihoods, and gender equity have been the focus from the outset.

When looked at as a whole, the vision of Timbaktu Collective is to empower rural and marginalized communities to govern themselves, live in social harmony, and maintain a sustainable lifestyle. As of 2019, the organization works in 186 villages and serves 22,879 families.

The Timbaktu model

Community members in Anantapur are deeply connected to their land. “The relationship that exists between a mother and her son is the same relationship that a farmer shares with his land. Whatever we give her, she gives back to us in double-folds,” says K.T. Srirangappa, a farmer in the district.

Despite this relationship, community members had spent decades depending on chemical-based agriculture. The cost of these agricultural inputs was high, and seemed to only worsen issues of shrinking crop yields, loss of microorganisms in the soil, and land that was becoming increasingly infertile.

By the time Timbaktu Collective arrived to promote organic and biodynamic agriculture, farmers were skeptical. “We wondered how anything would grow without chemical fertilizer,” remembers G. Ramalingeshwara, a local farmer. “But because we had lost all our investments and our situation was bad we decided to step into organic farming for the first time with the Timbaktu Collective.”

Today, the organization’s Dharani (“Earth”) program works alongside farmers to build their knowledge in organic practices, the production of compost, and natural pest and disease management using a grinded blend of medicinal leaves, roots, and neem seeds. They also provide a number of extension services.

The Collective’s model supports community members to create their own farming cooperatives and business enterprises. Those independently-run efforts have been federated into the Dharani Farming and Marketing Cooperative, a producer-owned enterprise where farmers can sell their organic produce.

The cooperative processes, packages, and markets products under the brand name Timbaktu Organic, with all proceeds returning to the local economy. Sales of the brand’s products—which include millet, groundnut, and wild honey—have been on the rise, evidence of the growing demand for organic food products in rural and semi-urban markets.

A holistic approach, with people at its core

Timbaktu Collective’s further initiatives focus on efforts to build self sufficiency, both economically and environmentally.

Its Kalpavalli program collaborates with a group called the Kalpavalli Tree Growers’ Cooperative to protect and restore a 6,000-acre expanse that was previously a degraded wasteland. Cooperative members pay a small membership fee and can use the forests’ non-timber resources to support their families and start new livelihoods. To date, 11 forest watchers have been trained by the Collective and the Kalpavalli Community Conservation Area has been transformed into a vibrant grasslands ecosystem.

Other Timbaktu Collective programs focus on alternative banking, education for children and youth, legal aid and counselling for women and persons with disabilities, and more. Alongside, the Collective also runs a School of Agriculture that offers a one-year certificate on the practical and theoretical aspects of agriculture.

Though its initiatives are diverse, Ganguly notes that they all have human dignity, solidarity, and social justice at their core. It’s these values, combined with investing in local communities, that Ganguly says is the key to Timbaktu Collective’s success.

“We have, I believe, over three decades built the social capital in this area so that our projects can work and the people can own them,” Ganguly said in a 2020 interview. “This is not easy and needs to be built slowly and steadily. We all need to learn to trust and respect each other and then the rest will follow.”